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September 18, 2023

The Lake Erie Lights 9

By Hawkelson Rainier

Chapter 9: Doin' Time

Roy was extradited from a Cook County holding facility in Illinois to West Virginia where he faced a smorgasbord of felony charges. In return for his cooperation, he was able to cut a pretty good deal with the prosecutor -- a reduced sentence of ten years. They sat him down in an interrogation room next to his court appointed lawyer, set up a video recorder, and he sung like a canary. A few days later, a bleary-eyed Roy was roused from his cell. They processed him out of the jail and made him ready for transport to the state correctional facility.

The first rays from the sun had only begun to burn away the morning frost, and Roy was in an orange jumpsuit being led onto a dusty bus with about twenty other prisoners. He was handcuffed to a big white guy with a bald head and a lot of tattoos. Stoic guards with meticulously manicured mustaches held shotguns with blued steel barrels.

The driver, gray and fat and probably close to retirement, hummed along quite contentedly with the radio, as if the prisoners he was hauling were just a load of oranges going to market. The bus turned onto a two-lane country highway. Roy had the window seat, and the green hills and the white clouds swept by, and his thoughts returned to Sarah. "Don't cry now," he thought to himself, "don't cry, you idiot."

The first micro-fractures started to form in the walls of the dam, and Roy knew it was only a matter of time before he would lose it.

The walls bulged, and the hairline cracks opened up into gaping schisms as high-pressure torrents erupted through the thick concrete. Streams of tears were rolling down Roy's cheeks.

"What a little bitch," the bald-headed guy who was handcuffed to Roy remarked.

"No talking!" one of the guards yelled.

The dam gave way entirely, and then Roy was sobbing uncontrollably. "Oh God, I'm so sorry, Sarah," he bellowed through the tears and snot bubbles. "I didn't mean it. I'm so sorry," he ranted.

"Asshole," the guard in charge of keeping everybody quiet screamed, "you need to put a lid on it right now, or by God, I'll give you something to cry about!"

Roy managed to dial his hysterics down to a blubbery whimper until the guy chained to him chimed in with a rather insensitive remark. "Don't worry, you're gonna make a lot of friends," he whispered. "Especially in the showers."

That sent Roy reeling again, and the guard had enough. "Pull over, Marty," he told the driver, "We've got a candy ass prima donna who doesn't wanna follow the rules!"

The bus came to a stop, and two guards extracted Roy from his seat and led him to the back of the bus. A shotgun butt to the solar plexus dropped him to his knees. A swift kick in the middle of his back sent him prostrate. Another kick to the ribs sent a lightning bolt of pain through his body, and that did the trick. Roy let out a quick, high pitched yelp, and then he fell silent. The guards seemed pleased, and they loaded him back onto his seat. The bus got rolling again, and the green hills and the white clouds continued with their quiet parade.

If you heard the catcalls that echoed throughout D Block as two guards promenaded Roy down the long concrete corridor to the cramped cell that would be his home for the next decade or so, you might have gotten the impression that he looked something like a Swedish supermodel in a two-piece bikini. In reality, there was nothing pretty about him at that moment in time. He was emaciated, his animal eyes darted around nervously in their sunken sockets, his nostrils flared, and a thick vein protruded from his forehead and throbbed like some kind of blue parasite that was squirming just beneath the dermal layer.

"Here you are," one of the guards said, "Cell 538. Home sweet home."

The ugly truth was all around Roy. It was in the cold, damp air. It was in the sulfur smells that seeped out of the cracks in the ancient plumbing system. Most of all, it was in the eyes of the inmates. Roy had seen eyes like that when he was a little boy in the schoolyard. It usually started with a bully picking on a smaller kid. Then the crowd would gather, just curious at first, but as the fight intensified, the spectators would cheer ever louder until their voices merged into a unified, manic chant, "Blood, blood, blood!"

Most of them didn't give a damn who won or who lost the fight. They were just so bored with the arbitrary rules and regulations that had been heaped on them by their parents, and teachers, and society in general, that the drama of a violent struggle stirred those old animal instincts that served our ancestors so well when they were still trying to eke out a living in the tall savannah grass and the high branches of the forests.

As Roy walked into his cell and the heavy iron door clanked shut, he wondered how much cruelty could be cultivated in the minds of men over a period of months, and years, and decades of confinement. Shitloads, he estimated.

Roy dropped his scratchy prison-issued sheets onto the top bunk, and then walked over to greet his new cellmate. The guy was so consumed by whatever was on the toaster-sized television set that he wasn't even aware another adult human had entered his seventy-two square foot universe.

"Hi, I'm Roy. I'm your new celly." He held out his hand to shake.

"Just one question for you, Roy," the man said as he stood up from a little wooden stool to reveal his hulking dimensions. He was about 6'4" and a good two hundred sixty pounds. There was a little cushion around the midsection, but the rest of him looked rock solid. His long, curly black hair and untamed beard gave the impression this guy would have been right at home on a pirate ship or charging headlong into a division of Roman legionaries. "Why in the fuck are you talking during The Price is Right?"

"Sorry," Roy said, meekly.

"What did you say to me?" Celly wanted to know.

"I said I'm sorry," Roy repeated.

"Yeah, you better be sorry," Celly said.

Here we go, Roy thought to himself. It's the schoolyard all over again. "Okay," he said.

"What's okay?" Celly said.

"I said I'm sorry, and you said I'd better be, and I said okay to confirm that I was, in fact, sorry," Roy explained.

"You think you're such a smart mother fucker, huh?"

Roy's fears suddenly evaporated. It seemed like he was outside of himself watching this ridiculous encounter as a third person observer. "You don't have to do this whole song and dance routine," he said casually.

"What?" Celly asked.

"If you want to fight, just say so. You don't have to invent these bullshit reasons. Just be a man and say you want to fight."

"You must be crazy," Celly observed.

"In fact, you don't have to say anything. All you have to do is start swingin'."

The inmates in the cells adjacent to Roy's listened as the confrontation escalated. They stretched their arms out from between the bars while holding mirrors at strategic angles and intercepted the light waves that would tell the unlikely story.

"Is that right?" Celly said.

"You ask too many fucking questions," Roy said in an offhand kind of way, and then he launched a quick straight right into Celly's nose. It sounded like a meat mallet thudding into a juicy steak. Celly brought his hands to his face; blood flowed between his fingers and Roy had a brief flashback to the snakes that slithered out of the dark pool that had collected beneath the dying security guard. I could have helped him, Roy thought. I should have helped him.

"Fight!" a greasy looking guy with an aggravated assault rap in cell 537 announced to the entire block.

Celly had recovered from the initial shock, but his vision was blurred by stinging tears that had welled up from the broken nose, and he was seized with a coughing fit after inhaling some of his own blood. He battled on, throwing a looping right hook, and Roy slipped his head just under it. Celly's lunchbox-sized fist impacted the cinder block wall, and the big man yelped like a chihuahua that had been stepped on by a careless child when the metacarpal bone in his pinky snapped. A classic boxer's break.

Roy delivered a quick kick to Celly's shin that sounded like a foul ball coming off a wooden bat. Then, recalling the helpful tip he had learned earlier that morning on the bus ride over, he snapped a lightning quick straight left to the solar plexus. Celly slumped over and began falling forward, slowly at first, and then gathering momentum the way a big tree does after you've taken a chainsaw to it. He crashed to the ground, and his forehead bounced on the unforgiving cement. Roy watched as the beast of a man gasped for air, broken and bloodied like a bull only half-killed by a clumsy matador.

"Big Brad Danson is getting the shit kicked out of him by the new fish!" Vehicular Manslaughter from 539 reported.

"Bullshit," Grand Larceny yelled.

"He's not shittin' you. Big Brad's down!" Aggravated Assault confirmed.

"Kick his fuckin' ass," Drug Trafficking from 551 encouraged.

"Stomp his fat head!" Armed Robbery from 547 cheered.

The news rolled through D Block like an arsonist's accelerant fueled flames through a debt-riddled restaurant.

"This guy ain't no regular fish," Vehicular Manslaughter observed, "He's a God damn shark."

The individual comments tapered off gradually, and a chant began to emerge, building like a storm way out at sea, and then crashing counterclockwise into the coast.

"Shark, Shark, Shark!" roared through D Block.

Roy was vaguely aware that the floor was vibrating. Earthquake? Do they have Earthquakes in West Virginia? Probably not too often, he figured. Must be something else. Then it occurred to him -- the floor is vibrating from noise. Roy didn't know it, but during the brawl, he experienced a condition known in the scientific world as auditory exclusion. It's a phenomenon that sometimes affects people during high-stress fights or flight situations. Their brain filters out extraneous sounds so the individual can focus on the problem at hand: either fighting or fleeing.

With the big man bleeding and wheezing on the floor, Roy's brain decided it was okay to switch the old ears back on. The block was riled up like a hornets' nest that had been poked repeatedly with a stick. Roy realized, then, that he was this guy named Shark. The chants were for him, and everybody wanted a show. It was the playground all over again, only the stakes were higher now. He raised his right foot off the ground and balanced on the other leg for a solid four or five seconds. To the guys watching in their mirrors, Roy kind of looked like a dog who was about to mark its territory.

In reality, Roy was trying to figure out how much force it would take to kill somebody by stomping on their skull. He wanted to send a message, but he knew he'd never get out of that shit hole if he ended up killing his celly, or turning him into a cabbage. All things considered, Roy had worked out a pretty sweet deal with the prosecutor. He sure as hell didn't want to pick up a murder rap on the first day of his ten-year sentence.

Roy finally finished the complex calculations and brought his foot down on Celly's head with about as much force that is required to kill a medium-sized rat. The riot squad crashed into cell 538 geared up with shields, helmets, and clubs. After Big Brad had been carted away to the infirmary and Roy's hands and feet were shackled, one of the pigs decided to give him a little spritz of chemical mace just to freshen him up for his trip to solitary. Blinded and choking, Roy figured things went about as well as they could have under the circumstances.

"Let's see how you like the chiller, tough guy," the Clint Eastwood Wannabe with the can of mace remarked as he shoved Roy into a 6-foot by 7-foot cell. There were a couple of T10 fluorescent tubes mounted on the high ceiling that pissed ugly light into his concrete tomb. A cement slab jutted from one of the walls. It had a ratty blanket on it, and Roy figured it must be the bed. The toilet and sink were stainless steel, both on the wall opposite the entrance. The eight-inch by eight-inch window in the cell door was really a one-way mirror. They could see him, but he couldn't see out.

External sounds ceased when the heavy door locked shut behind him. Roy was left alone with the whispering buzz of the lights and his own thoughts. "Fuckin' shit." he pontificated out loud. "How did I get here?" he wondered. Was it the intense pressure his parents put on him to excel in school? Was it because of his drinking? Was it because of Sarah? No, he finally decided, it was just some bad acid.

It just totally screwed with my mind. Fuckin' ghost snipers on the buildings. Did I really believe that? What was I thinking? How long will they keep me here? Jesus, I'd rather be in with the general population. It's pretty cold in here. Maybe that's why he called it the chiller.

Roy found that if he wrapped himself up like a cocoon inside the flimsy blanket, he could retain more body heat while blocking out some of that God-forsaken light that rained down from the fluorescent tubes. Sleep seemed far away, but there was nothing left to do. After a long time, he dozed off.

Some hours later, Roy's Grade-E-but-fit-for-human-consumption dinner was scooped out of an industrial-sized tub and delivered on a tray through a slot at the bottom of the iron door. The plastic sliding across the concrete woke him, and he tried to sit up but found he couldn't move. The paralysis hadn't happened since the night he met Sarah.

Roy always suspected the steady diet of booze and drugs had kept his annoying little sleeping disorder at bay, but since he'd been in the penal system, he hadn't been able to self-medicate. A faint tingling started in his fingertips and his toes, climbing his arms and legs, gradually building in intensity. Then, it reached his stomach, and it felt like when you're cruising along in coach sipping overpriced booze out of an undersized bottle, and the whole plane suddenly dips, and the bottom drops out of your belly.

No, he thought, I'm not gonna do this right now. I'm not going up there. With all the concrete and iron around him, it was easy to think heavy thoughts, and that's precisely what he did.

The weightless feeling began to subside, and eventually, it left Roy's body altogether. Within fifteen or twenty seconds he regained his physical faculties and got up to inspect the food tray. It didn't look promising. The trace scent of ammonia wafted out of the rectangular portion of meat, the green beans were rubbery, the biscuit was as hard as a baseball, and the apple was small, misshapen, and nearly void of flavor. The meal's only saving grace was the cranberry juice box, though it was proportioned for a five-year-old, and the little flexible straw that came with it was cracked. He took one bite of everything, sucked the juice box dry sans straw, and slid the culinary abomination back through the slot at the bottom of the door.

"You could go crazy in this place," Roy said out loud.

"You got that right," he answered himself.

"Already talkin' to yourself."

"I'm gonna see if I can speak to my lawyer."

"Good luck with that. Let me know how it goes. . ."

The crushing ennui of "The Chiller" felt like a physical weight pressing the life out of Roy's body. The soul-sucking monotony was interrupted only twice a week for a total of two minutes of frigid shower time, and a measly one-hour-a-week of yard time. And even the yard time sucked. Two guards would escort Roy outside in shackles for his state-mandated dose of physical activity. He had to spend his sixty minutes isolated on a 15-foot by 15-foot patch of dirt.

The guards would unshackle him, and he'd run laps around the perimeter until he got dizzy, then he'd switch directions. And when his lungs burned like he inhaled a cloud of acid, and it felt like his heart was going to explode in his chest, he'd switch to pushups until his arms failed, and then it was on to sit-ups until his abs quivered and constricted into knots. Repeat.

For Roy, the concept of time began to evaporate. Minutes and hours, days and weeks, don't mean much in solitary. He couldn't even approximate the time of day by the meals he received. The trays arrived through the slot in the door according to no discernible schedule. Sometimes he got one meal a day, sometimes two. It was some kind of loophole the warden had found in the system. Prisoners only needed to be provided with a minimum number of vitamins and calories per day. If that daily minimum could be accomplished in one meal, so be it. That's all he got.

Then they started to puree the meals and bake them into loaves, so Roy never knew if he was eating Sloppy Joes or Belgian waffles. And those loaves wouldn't fit through the slot in the door, so they'd crush them down and force 'em through. Roy would be left with this mangled, greasy, green, something loaf. He'd hold his nose and try to shove it down his gullet, but it was always a crapshoot. A lot of times his body would reject the vile concoction, and he'd heave it into the stainless steel toilet bowl.

Roy had expected the culinary experience to fall somewhere in the range of horrible to disgusting -- that's pretty much a given when you end up in prison. But it was the fluorescent lights that really started to unstitch his sanity. They were on perpetually, and as much as Roy tried to block it out, some of the light would always find a way to seep in beneath his eyelids. The constant exposure to the harsh fluorescent light completely sabotaged his circadian rhythm. Sleep was damn near impossible for more than fifteen or twenty minutes at a time.

It was bullshit. It was torture. Roy was gonna let his pimply-faced court-appointed lawyer hear about it. This kind of treatment was in direct violation of the Constitution. It had to be, right? He thought about it for a second and reconsidered. Where was that lazy lawyer, anyway? Roy had put in a request to meet with his counsel every time the guards arrived to march him out to the dog kennel that was somehow passing for an exercise yard. How long had he been in the Chiller anyway? Six months? A year?

Roy couldn't even come up with a ballpark answer. A burst of adrenaline got his heart going pretty good, and it pounded in his ears like in those old black and white movies when the cowboys are riding through the valley, and everybody falls silent as they hear the ominous drone of war drums rolling down from the mountaintops. He had only been in contact with his family twice since he dropped out of school. The first time, he had mailed a heartfelt letter to his parents explaining that he met a girl and he was living in upstate New York. He went on to say that he needed some time away from school to sort out his thoughts and figure out what he wanted to do with his life.

The reply had been stinging and curt: "So you want to throw away everything just to shack up with some trailer trash? Do you know what you've done to your mother? You can finance this little escapade by yourself. You're officially cut off."

The second time Roy reached out to his parents was on the day he got arrested in Chicago. He was being held in the Cook County facility awaiting extradition to West Virginia, and he thought his parents would let bygones be bygones when they found out their only child was facing a wide range of charges, including accessory to murder, conspiring to commit an act of terrorism, criminal trespassing, obstruction of justice, and possession of a Schedule I drug.

His mother had mumbled something about how he was a disgrace to their family name, and his father said that he would have to take his chances with a public defender. Then that grating, rapid-fire series of tones sounded off in Roy's ear to let him know that the party on the other end of the phone had hung up a while ago, and rather than just stand there like an asshole he should do the same.

Roy's parents had basically disowned him, and his network of friends vanished the moment he testified against them. There was nobody on the outside that gave a damn about him. There were no visitors clamoring to see him, there was no mail addressed to him, and if his piece of shit public defender didn't do his due diligence, the warden might just let him rot inside that tiny little sarcophagus.

There was only one thing Roy felt he had control over, and he intended to address it as soon as possible: those fucking fluorescent lights had to go. He recruited the help of a hefty stone he nonchalantly scooped up in the yard while doing a pec-blasting set of one hundred pushups. He dropped it in the cuff of his pants, and the guards missed it. Not surprising, Roy thought; they're just fat, hung-over fuck-ups waiting for quitting time like most everybody else in the world.

Once he had been deposited back in his cell, Roy tossed the stone from hand to hand, contemplating the consequences of what he was about to do. Would they beat me? Would they kill me? He finally decided that he could use a little variety, and whatever punishment they invented for him would be a welcome change to his daily routine. His aim was a bit rusty, so it took four attempts to knock out the two bulbs. Finally, the maddening buzz ceased, and darkness flooded his cell. Roy crunched across glass shards that littered the floor, fell onto his cold bed, and plummeted into an oblivious sleep.

Eventually, hunger pangs coaxed him back into the world of the living. Even though he opened his eyes, he was still immersed in near total darkness, save for a few photons that found their way in through the tiny gap beneath the door. How long have I been asleep? He thought. It feels like more than a day. Man, my neck is sore. Gotta pee.

Roy swung his legs onto the floor and felt the bite of broken glass in the soles of his feet. Shit! He must have kicked off his shoes sometime during his sleep, and he fumbled around until he found them. Then he crunched across the cell, hit his hip hard on the corner of the bed, bounced off like a pinball, and guesstimated about where the toilet was. He had to make adjustments in midstream until he heard the telltale splashing sound indicating his aim was true. Then, he made his way over to the door expecting to find his tray of food waiting for him in the darkness.


Huh, that's odd. Maybe I wasn't asleep for as long as I thought.

God, it's so cold in this place. I hope they bring my food soon. It seems like I haven't eaten in days.

I'm gonna sue my asshole lawyer when I get out of here. Can you sue your own lawyer? I don't see why not. You can sue anyone these days.

I wonder where Sarah is. I hope she's safe. Why did we drop acid that night when we went to burn the dragline? It was your idea, asshole. You were pissed that Bryce stuck you and Sarah on lookout duty. Instead of taking it seriously, you decided to party. It was always just a game to you. You never gave a fuck about the environment, or spirituality, or any of that shit.

Then you fed Sarah that cheesy spiel about how you and her had been drifting apart, and maybe if you tripped together on that beautiful night up in the mountains the Universe might restore that sense of oneness you used to share. You put the tab on her tongue.

It was stupid. Of course she freaked when that security guard jumped out of his truck. The dude probably looked like a minotaur or something to her. And why did Bryce give her a gun? Fuck Bryce. He talked all that stupid bullshit about seeking enlightenment, and he fucked all the girls, and every fuckin' one of us thought he was a God damn genius. Now it's pretty obvious he was just a weak little man who didn't know his own ass from a hole in the ground, and now we're all fucked.

Jesus, it's so cold in here. I hope they bring my food pretty soon. It feels like a few days since I ate anything. I don't even care if they bring me one of those something loaves. I bet one of those would be pretty tasty right about now.

Man, I think they skipped my turn in the yard. That sun would feel so good right now. I would just lay there in the dirt and let the Sun shine on my face. It's too bad people don't get their nutrients through photosynthesis. Food would be free. It would just come down out of the sky, and all the green people would go outside and soak it up. There'd be nothing to fight for. Everybody would be on the same playing field.

No, you're wrong. People would figure out ways to capitalize on the sun's energy. Those who reside in places saturated with the most light would undoubtedly gain some kind of edge over the rest of the population. Maybe the extra solar energy would give them an advantage in physical strength and intelligence. Then it's not a stretch to think that those sun-soaked bastards would drive the weaker populations into underground cities. The Sun People would charge the Ground People "fair market price" to retract portions of a dome which would allow life-giving shafts of sunlight to penetrate into their subterranean world.

Of course, the "fair market price" would be determined unilaterally by the Sun People, and if the Ground People didn't like it, they could wither and die. And since they were already underground, nobody would even have to bother to bury them. You can't have intelligent life without having a bunch of assholes. It's just how it works. Speaking of assholes, where are all the guards?

Roy pounded on his steel cell door with an open hand until it felt like fire ants were stinging his palm.

"Hey, where in the hell is my meal? I know my rights, God dammit. I'm hungry in here," he screamed.

He switched to his left hand and pounded some more.

"When my lawyer hears about this, somebody's fat ass is gonna fry," he ranted. Still, nobody came. He clenched his hands into fists and hammered at the steel until the blood ran freely from his knuckles. Soon after, the anger and the adrenaline wore off, and the pain showed up like a Jehovah's Witness lying on the doorbell at 8:00 A.M. on a Sunday morning after a hard night of partying. It was jarring, and it was persistent.

The water from the sink smelled heavily of iron, but it was cold, and it got the bleeding under control. Roy ripped his shirt in two and wrapped both of his hands. He felt faint from hunger and from the trauma to his hands, but once inside his blanket-cocoon, he felt a bit better. Even the thin mattress on the concrete slab felt fairly comfortable. Sleep snatched him away again.

Article © Hawkelson Rainier. All rights reserved.
Published on 2021-10-25
Image(s) are public domain.
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